Update on the Egypt NGO trials, and an appeciation of “the local staff” working for democracy

The Christian Science Monitor published an update today by Dan Murphy on the lingering situation of the trials of international NGO workers from the staffs of NDI, IRI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Egypt:

“Mostly forgotten, Egyptian trial of U.S. NGO workers drags on”

. . . .

The departure of most of the Americans took the air out of musings in Washington that Egypt’s US aid would be cut off in retaliation and in general press coverage of the case. Further easing concerns were the eventual charges, around the question of illegally receiving foreign funding for the NGOs, which carries jail time, but not a death sentence. Press coverage has dwindled to a trickle.

Civil society growth at stake

Yet the stakes of the ongoing trial, which is scheduled to resume on March 6, loom large for the future of the development of civil society in Egypt as much as they do for the 13 Egyptians, American, and German who have remained behind. “The government has successfully stigmatized the NGO world,” says Becker.” [The American NDI worker who stayed behind with the Egyptians.]

“It’s very lazy to to class this as an American-Egypt battle, or about the former regime versus the revolution,” says Halawa, who joined NDI in Cairo in July of 2011 and worked on training Egyptian political parties on grass-roots organization, poll-watching, and outreach. “It’s about civil society in this country and the ramifications are quite huge. You get the feeling that people are quite scared. We joined up with the revolution, to fight for free elections, most of us were election observer, and most of us weren’t planning to stay on much longer.”

Halawa and other defendants complain that Egypt’s NGO community has not rallied around them, frightened off by the early claims in the Egyptian press that they were spies or guilty of treason. That tactic was a staple of the Mubarak-era, and the meme was pushed hard by Mubarak holdover Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of international cooperation until earlier this year, who had long been at the sharp end of Mubarak-era efforts to prevent civil society from flourishing here.

[Update: see this excellent McClatchy story for Jan. 16, “Egyptians democracy workers still on trial for helping U.S. groups”]

I think this is the time for me to say something long overdue about the Kenyans (and one third-country national) who reported to me as “local staff” for the Kenya and Somaliland programs when I directed the East Africa office for IRI in Nairobi in 2007-08. The local staff made the programs run successfully and taught me most of what I learned about Kenya. I loved working with them. As the only American there, I got a disproportionate share of the recognition and appreciation, but we were all especially dependent on the local staff because IRI was short-handed for East Africa in Washington. When the New York Times called me in July 2008 after the embargoed IRI exit polI showing an Odinga win was released at by CSIS in Washington, I sent the Times a written statement following my interview. I included this, although it wasn’t “news” when the story finally ran the next January:

The local IRI staff in Kenya did an outstanding job with the hard work of the election observation and keeping the office and programming together under very trying circumstances. I am very proud of the job they did with all of our programming. The exit poll was primarily handled by Strategic and UCSD and myself—if it failed in its execution that would be my responsibility and not that of anyone else in the office. As far as the decisions regarding whether or not to disclose the results to the Kenyan public, those were made in Washington and were outside the control of the local staff.

I hope that IRI and NDI and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation are able to be of substantial aid to those stuck facing trial in Egypt for simply working for democracy in their own county for these organizations. These people should not be forgotten.

One thought on “Update on the Egypt NGO trials, and an appeciation of “the local staff” working for democracy

  1. Pingback: “The War for History” part ten: What was going on in the State Department on Kenya’s failed election, recognizing change at IRI–and how the 2007 exit poll controversy turned into a boon for IRI in Kenya | AfriCommons Blog

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